John Whorf was a prolific American painter who achieved a successful career as a watercolorist despite the difficulties of the Great Depression. Known primarily for his depictions of Provincetown and Boston, he was greatly influenced by his early introduction to French Impressionism, as well as by the artists John Singer Sargent and Frederick Judd Waugh.
Born and raised in Winthrop, Massachusetts, Whorf began his artistic education with informal studies with his father, Harry C. Whorf, a graphic designer. Harry and Sarah (Sadie), John’s mother, took an active interest in the development of their children’s creative pursuits. Their home was full of easels that were freely used by John and his brothers, their parents at times even encouraging them to paint on the walls. Whorf began his formal training in the Boston atelier of Sherman Kidd and at the Museum School, where he studied drawing with Philip Leslie Hall (1865–1931) and painting with William James (1882–1961).
Whorf spent summers in Provincetown, Massachusetts, which proved to have a significant influence on the development of his painterly style. Provincetown was then a flourishing artist colony, increased further by the arrival of artists and writers fleeing war-torn Europe. It was there that Whorf began studying under George Elmer Browne (1871–1946) and Charles Webster Hawthorne (1870–1930), who introduced the young artist to Impressionism, an influence that continued to be evident in Whorf’s art throughout his career. In 1919, Whorf traveled to France, Spain, Portugal, and Morocco, at which point he began to shift his focus away from oil painting and almost exclusively to watercolors.
By the time he was twenty years old, Whorf had staged two solo shows and was regularly exhibiting his work in Boston. During a 1924 exhibition at the Grace Horne Gallery, he attracted the attention of John Singer Sargent, who purchased one of his paintings. That same year, Whorf received informal instruction from Sargent, who had a clear influence on Whorf’s style. Whorf went on to annually exhibit his paintings both at Grace Horne Gallery in Boston and at the Milch Gallery in New York for over thirty years. Popular with the public and well-received by critics, his watercolors were compared to those of Sargent and Winslow Homer.
Whorf continued to spend summers in Provincetown with his wife Vivienne, née Wing, whom he met in his hometown of Winthrop as a student. In 1934, Whorf and Vivienne began renting a cottage from the Waugh family, thus beginning Whorf’s acquaintance with the marine painter Frederick Judd Waugh (1861–1940). Influenced by Waugh’s realistic depictions of crashing waves on the shores of Cape Cod, Whorf began painting seascapes. With advice from Waugh, who was by then in his seventies, Whorf worked on developing his talent in painting marine watercolors, including, however, elements of human interest and figurative elements that Waugh tended to exclude from his own work.
Whorf initially had the intention of moving only temporarily to Provincetown to wait out the economic hardships of the Great Depression. However, the town provided Whorf with ongoing artistic inspiration and by the mid-1930s, Whorf, Vivienne, and their four children had permanently settled in Provincetown. Whorf enjoyed depicting a side of the summer resort town that vacationers seldom experienced, finding poetry in Cape Cod’s austere off-season beauty. Critics and art collectors were drawn to Whorf’s depictions of Provincetown’s fishing boats, beaches, and cottages. In 1945, Whorf told a reporter for the New Bedford Standard Times that he had “never been sorry I settled in Provincetown. It is even more paintable in winter than in summer. The landscape is very handsome with a tracery of snow. We have ice storms here that make even a piece of clothesline a thing of beauty.”
The difficulty of the Depression years did not discourage Whorf from his ever prolific work. Even during the worst years of that era, Whorf almost never painted on commission, and continued selling out his biannual solo exhibitions in Boston and New York, held regularly in the late autumn and early spring. Whorf was particularly drawn to the classic streets and New England architecture of Boston, and by the late 1930s, incorporated cityscapes into his oeuvre.
Whorf received numerous honors and awards for his achievements, including the Logan Medal, awarded by The Art Institute of Chicago in 1928. In 1938, he became the first contemporary painter to receive an honorary Master of Arts degree from Harvard University. A year later he was honored by The Art Institute of Chicago again when it featured twenty-four of his paintings alongside those by Edward Hopper and Henri Matisse at its International Exhibition of Water Colors. In 1947, Whorf was elected to the National Academy of Design and in 1948, to the American Watercolor Society. In Provincetown, he was an active member of the Beachcombers Club, founded by his mentors George Elmer Browne and Charles Webster Hawthorne.
Whorf died in Provincetown at the age of 56. His paintings may be found in numerous prestigious museum collections, among them the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York and The Art Institute of Chicago in Illinois, as well as in the Pitti Palace in Florence, Italy and the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, Sweden.